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Tesla's Model S Sedan Destroys Safety Tests ... Literally


Tesla's Model S Sedan Destroys Safety Tests ... Literally

Photograph by Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

In the long history of automotive safety press releases, no carmaker has ever issued a statement quite like the one put out by Tesla Motors (TSLA) on Monday night.

The statement begins by looking at a battery of tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Tesla’s Model S all-electric luxury sedan. The reader is quickly told that the Model S got a 5-star rating overall and a 5-star rating in all the subcategories. “Of all vehicles tested, including every major make and model approved for sale in the United States, the Model S set a new record for the lowest likelihood of injury to occupants,” Tesla said.

Ah, but being possibly the safest commercial car ever built is not good enough for Tesla and its chief executive officer, Elon Musk, who actually penned the press release. No, Tesla must inflict pain on the entire testing process and its pedestrian equipment.

And so, in paragraph No. 8, we learn that testers tried to crush the roof of the Model S. And we learn that the crusher was crushed. “Of note, during validation of Model S roof crush protection at an independent commercial facility, the testing machine failed at just above 4 g’s,” Tesla said. “While the exact number is uncertain due to Model S breaking the testing machine, what this means is that at least four additional fully loaded Model S vehicles could be placed on top of an owner’s car without the roof caving in.”

So, Model S owners, you can sleep easy if a Carnado ever rolls through town.

This release is typical Musk. It’s got a showman’s flair, plenty of bravado, and quite a bit of physics thrown in. Once it hit the Web, various commentators were quick to start poking fun at Tesla’s boasting. Tech writer Dan Frommer tweeted: “While the exact number of inches could not be measured due to Mr. Musk’s mental forces breaking the testing machine.” And the parody Twitter account @BoredElonMusk declared, “I’ve hit a wall for new ideas this morning guys. Lucky I was in a Model S so I’m completely safe.”

There’s a serious element to all this, though. In 10 years, Tesla has come out of nowhere to show up Detroit in a big way. Yes, the Model S is really expensive. And, yes, Tesla has a long way to go to prove itself as a steady, profitable enterprise. But its first quasi-mainstream car has now set the highest-ever marks on all manner of car industry tests while also winning the car industry’s most prestigious awards.

As Musk explains in the release, there are some straightforward reasons why the Model S is so safe. For one, the car does not have a boulder of an engine, filled with combustible fuel, under its hood. Instead, the Model S has a front trunk—aka, a “frunk.” That gives the Model S a long crumple zone to absorb the force of an impact. Meanwhile, the Model S’s one-foot wide electric motor has been mounted close to the rear axle, where it can cause relatively little harm.

Later, Musk explains: “The Model S was also substantially better in rollover risk, with the other top vehicles being approximately 50 percent worse. During testing at an independent facility, the Model S refused to turn over via the normal methods and special means were needed to induce the car to roll. The reason for such a good outcome is that the battery pack is mounted below the floor pan, providing a very low center of gravity, which simultaneously ensures exceptional handling and safety.”

Some more details on the “special means” would be nice here. Did Tesla hire the Hulk as an independent contractor? Did Musk hitch the Model S to one of his SpaceX rockets? Inquiring minds want to know.

Vance_190
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. He is the author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (HarperCollins, May 2015). Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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